One of the many things that make me different to everyone else, is that I take nothing for granted. I critically analyse everything. I question everything. I absolutely hate those who assert something as true which is not just scientifically unsound but logically fallacious. Their claims are always on my watch. One such claim is that of the existence of the soul and that’s about to get a thorough debunking.
Before we get to it, we must first be able to define a soul. I’ve been told that Wikipedia isn’t the best place to look for information as ‘even a lay person’ could author and edit an article. Well, I choose to think differently. If an authority on a topic did really care about the accuracy of information on there, they’d arrange for that either by correcting it themselves or getting someone to do it. But is that even necessary here? The ones capitalising on the idea of the soul are not experts on anything. It shouldn’t take any more than series of rational thoughts to debunk an idea this ludicrous.Forgive the absence of citations. There’s never been any promising research affirming the existence of souls and thus needn’t require mountains of evidence to debunk.
What is a soul?
Wikipedia enlists ‘Soul’ as an immortal incorporeal inhabitant of a mortal living being. (Excuse my intense paraphrasing.) Details may vary depending on whom you’re asking.
In simpler terms, the soul is a metaphysical entity that uses a physical living body as a host. So, a person’s soul is independent of their body. The soul is intangible – you can’t touch a soul. You can’t harm the soul. The soul lives forever. The invention of the soul is, by far, the most common solution (or at least a part of the solution) to the problem of death and the pursuit of immortality. All major religions have a variation of it in their scriptures but the basic idea is the same everywhere.
Can the soul exist?
The idea of the soul is logically valid. There is nothing wrong with thinking that you – your being, your soul – and your body are disjunct. There are times when the body doesn’t act as it’s supposed to, and might act against your will. So, logically it is possible that the entity known as the soul might exist. However, that shouldn’t be the end of the conversation. Once something is determined to be logically valid, the idea has to be tested for scientific soundness. The concept of the soul fails that test.
The fact that the soul is defined as intangible makes the idea unfalsifiable, and thus unscientific.
Falsifiability is one of the essential requisites of a scientific theory – before we go about proving something, we need to ensure that it can potentially be proven false. This is necessary because the claims deserving attention are those that can further discoveries and not impede them.
For instance, one could assert that the story of Harry Potter is true. If asked to substantiate their claims they can affirm that the magical world is intangible to humans. A non-magical person, a muggle, will not be able to find magical lands despite their best efforts. They’re not wrong. That’s exactly how the magical world is described. The claim cannot be falsified. Great! How do we prove that it really exists then? Well, all we’ve got right now is a ‘You can’t prove them wrong.’
Do you see the problem? Anyone could come up with a story, set in the real world, with an explanation as to why the events of the story don’t affect us, but those stories cannot be taken seriously from a scientific perspective. A statement can only be said to be true logically when it’s proven true and not by making it impossible to falsify. If the only argument for the existence of something is its unfalsifiability, we have no debate at all. The idea is out the window that very moment. You can keep believing in ridiculous unsubstantiated concepts all you want while I reject them and get on with my life (and you yours).
It was in fact Richard Feynman, in one of his infamous lectures, who went so far as to say that a scientific theory is not something that ought to be proven right. A theory is simply that which best explains a phenomenon and has not yet been proven wrong or inadequate, but it should nevertheless be possible to prove wrong.
A scientific theory has to be falsifiable. Concepts like gravity and evolution are falsifiable – they can be easily disproven if anyone shows evidence of a single instance of their failure in an experimental setup. The fact that no such thing happens simply strengthens the theory further.
Why else it is wrong
See, most of humanity thinks of the soul as their inner identity – a personification of their conscious mind. It’s the one thing they own that no one else can, so there’s a strong sense of belongingness. They’re essentially passengers in their current bodies. We are like ghosts with the ability to possess a physical body and lug it around at will to manipulate other physical objects.
Of course, that raises an important question. The soul is intangible, isn’t it? That means it will go undetected despite our best efforts to measure or capture them with any instruments or in any imaging device, won’t they? If that’s the case, what makes a soul capable of controlling something as physically real as a living body?
When a person dies, their soul is said to vacate the body. Is that the only time the soul can leave or can it happen while the person is alive? An intangible entity like that shouldn’t have any problems leaving the body at will. Speaking of intangible, the soul is immune to all the naturally occurring forces, isn’t it? That means gravity cannot rip it out of the body and neither can electromagnetic forces. However, the body does move with the earth, doesn’t it?
At every point in time the body has a velocity tangential to the person’s circle of rotation on the earth (which coincides with their current latitude). In addition, the earth revolves around the sun, which makes a body’s overall movement quite complex, and to top it off, the sun revolves around in the galaxy and the galaxy itself moves quite a bit. The soul avoids the influence of all forces and still manages to stay within the body of the person till death does them apart. This should suggest the soul has to undergo the painstaking task of precisely calculating its trajectory so as to avoid slipping out of the body.
There’s more. The soul continues to stay in the body regardless of events it could not foresee. A person could be in an accident which might involve a sudden large instantaneous change in velocity. The soul pools in all its strength to stay within the body. Seriously, am I the only one thinking about this?
The mind-body problem
Humans in many cultures have, in addition to the problem of death, pondered the mind-body problem. The mind is usually considered disjunct from the body and some refer to that mind as the soul. The reasons they do this are plentiful. Spasms, seizures, sleep paralysis and any condition that prevents the control of a part of the body can make it appear as if the mind is indeed separate from the body. When these things happen in a relatively uninformed superstitious group, they’d attribute it to demonic possession.
It is difficult to logically conclude the fact that the mind is bound to the body and not separate from it. Everything that we’ve ever attributed to the soul is simply a collection of electrochemical processes that is only possible within the body and not outside it. There is no such part of the brain that houses or is capable of housing a soul. There is no evidence to suggest that any part of the brain attempts to communicate with anything intangible.
Neuroscience, the study of the nervous system, posits that everything experienced by a person is the work of the brain alone. Emotions are just a specific mixture of chemicals interacting with the brain. You can literally depress or elate a person by injecting them with the right chemicals. However, popular experience seems to contradict the facts – let me finish – because the facts are virtually unknown to the general public.
So, what’s the mind
The mind is a facade created by the brain to separate action from actuation. It is done to reduce the brain’s effort between thinking and doing. The parts of the brain, inaccessible to our conscience, has the schematics to every series of actions the body needs to undertake to perform a specific higher function.
When a person walks, they don’t consciously decide to control every single muscle in their legs in a precise sequence; they just decide to walk and it happens. When a person sings, they don’t decide to flap their vocal cords a specific number of times for a specific duration; they just will it and it happens. When one writes, they don’t enact a fixed sequence of complex muscle movements in their fingers; they just write.
All the complex calculations, reception of feedback from external stimulus and revaluation necessary to move your body a certain way is done without one’s conscious control. Knowing that, it is not surprising that one would want to believe in a soul. That would, however, just be wishful thinking.
More about the mind
Evolution, with the aid of natural selection, has ensured that those with the action-actuation gap survive and thrive. I’m not saying there might exist people without such abilities. It’s just that they had an evolutionary advantage over any organism that might have to operate their own bodies like we would a robot.
Imagine a universe where you’d have to will every muscle into action separately. Once you stand up, you’ll have to constantly get yourself to twitch every muscle concerned with balancing the body to a precise degree to avoid collapsing. Try remembering the first time you played a first person shooter or a guitar, if you’re one of those. It must’ve been immensely difficult the first few times with you remembering what to do as you did it. With each successive try, you trained yourself to do it right. The more you played, the better you got at it.
Right there is your mind body divide. You willed to perform a certain action and it just happened; you didn’t have to think about it. Your brain did it’s best to keep you from being concerned with actuation. The next time you hear, ‘Practise makes one perfect’, that’s exactly what they mean. Give your mind a high five for me.
How the idea of souls came into being
Well, anatomically, a living human and a corpse are exactly the same. The soul was invented to explain what might be the difference between the two. It was a good enough explanation, but not all had the curiosity to pursue the idea further and none put it to a test. Those that did, didn’t use experimentation to prove it’s existence. They rather built upon the established ideas and gave it attributes that would prevent it from falsification, maybe not on purpose. It takes only a few generations of cumulative wishful thinking to arrive at unfalsifiable claims.
Eventually, cultures around the world built their respective mythologies around the concept of the soul before the scientists got to it. Now we have a well built delusion instead of a foolish idea in its infancy. This foolish idea wouldn’t spark attention if it weren’t the bedrock of religions.
Problems with souls
For now, let’s tackle the non-religious concepts of the soul. Perhaps each religion will be separately dealt with in future articles.
It is a fact that a person’s personality – one of the things wrongly attributed to the soul – is just a bunch of chemical reactions. Hormonal imbalances can trigger out-of-character behaviour. Mental illnesses that arise from severe wounds to the brain can change a personality drastically. Traumatic experiences even for short durations and without physical wounding could massively alter a person. With such real life scenarios panning out all the time, it is difficult to believe one’s soul, if they existed, remains immune to any such impacts.
What happens to a psychopath? They literally lack the centre for empathy in their brain. So, is that person possessed by a bad soul? Or is it that their bodies don’t comply with the personality of the soul? What happens to a person with dementia? How is it that they stop being able to perform basic activities and yet continue to be ‘the same person on the inside’?
There have been many people who claimed of remembering a past life. This would suggest that the soul has the capacity to recall in and of itself and can potentially, without leaving behind any trace of transportation, move some or all of a person’s memory from one organism to another. So, a soul can alter a person’s brain chemistry to remember previous lives but still fail to overcome brain damage in a current body. Curious, isn’t it?
So, now what?
I’m not saying that believers in the concept of the soul are stupid. Hmm, no, not really. That’s exactly what I’m saying. But, it’s never too late to give it some hard thought and grow out of the belief. Acknowledging the truth will only make it better. All I want through this article is to plug out as many people from the Matrix of this stupidity as I can.
I know there’s a lot more about the soul I haven’t touched upon. Do let me know if I’ve missed anything. If there are any factual errors in this article, let me know about that too. Share this piece far and wide. If there’s any bullshit you’d like debunked, throw me a link.
And as always, think!